PerryScope – The fallacy of ‘America First’


When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1933, he instituted his New Deal programs, some of which were the Social Security Administration (SSA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Civil Works Administration (CVA), and Farm Security Administration (FSA).  Roosevelt focused on what were referred to as the “3 Rs” – relief for the unemployed and poor, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat of the depression.

But several presidents who followed Roosevelt did not adhere to the “’3 Rs” that led to the Great Recession of 2009, which was caused by the collapse of the housing market; and, more recently, the Great Recession of 2019, which was caused by Trump’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Trump era

But nothing was more harmful than Trump’s “America First” policy, an isolationist and protectionist attempt to disengage the US from her allies and trade partners.  It’s back to the time when the US isolated itself from the rest of the world.  Trump began the process of dissociating the US from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  Had Trump won reelection last November, he would have moved for the dismantling of NATO, which he believed had outlived its usefulness.  He became too friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin; they   became buddies often calling each other on the phone.  Meanwhile, Russia was secretly developing and testing new nuclear cruise missiles that were not allowed under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibited the possession, production, or flight-testing of ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.  In 2019, the US, after repeatedly complaining about Russia’s non-compliance, withdrew from the INF Treaty.

Surmise it to say, it would appear then that Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin was a prelude to the US withdrawing from NATO.  It was just a matter of time but his election loss in 2020 prevented that from happening.

In a nutshell, Trump believed that his “America First” policy would best serve America’s geopolitical and economic policies.  His trade war with China, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico hurt the US economy in terms money and jobs.  Trump claimed that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” but as it turned out it had significantly hurt the American economy.

The trade war caused economic pain on all sides and led to the diversion of trade flows away from the United States and the other countries.  The Washington Post described it plainly:  “U.S. economic growth slowed, business investment froze, and companies didn’t hire as many people. Across the nation, a lot of farmers went bankrupt, and the manufacturing and freight transportation sectors hit lows not seen since the last recession. Trump’s actions amounted to one of the largest tax increases in years.”  Indeed, the net effect of the trade war is “More pain than gain.”

At the end of 2019, the trade war had cost nearly 300,000 jobs and 0.7% of GDP.  By the end of 2020, it cost $316 billion to the economy, and companies lost at least $1.7 trillion in the price of their stocks as a result of tariffs imposed on imports from China alone.

“America First” meant that Trump had to re-fashion America’s foreign policy by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, World Health Organization, and Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)  — which consists of the US, the UK, China, France, Russia, and Germany (known as P5+1) — that placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanction relief.  Later on, Trump demanded the extension of restrictions against Iran for breaking the terms of JCPOA that he himself had withdrawn from.

America is back

Recently, President Joe Biden, in his first major foreign policy speech at the Munich Security Conference, said that the US has re-entered the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord.  He also said that he has overturned the Muslim travel ban, and that the US will return to the JCPOA if Iran resumes compliance.

Biden declared, “America is back, the trans-Atlantic alliance is back… and we are not looking backward.”  And in no uncertain terms, he concluded: “We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That is our galvanizing mission. Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it. Strengthen it. Renew it.”

Indeed, that spells the end of Trump’s “America First” and the beginning of Bidenism, the re-engagement and leadership of the US in world affairs.  But in a veiled warning to China, Biden said: “We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” naming “Cyberspace, artificial intelligence and biotechnology” as the new subjects of competition. “The West must again be setting the rules of how these technologies are used,” he argued, “rather than ceding those forums to Beijing.”  And make no mistake; Biden has assured America’s allies and the Free World that the US will confront China in all fronts geopolitically, economically, technologically and militarily

He also mentioned pushing back against Russia, particularly the need to respond to the SolarWinds attack on federal and corporate computer networks.  “Addressing Russian recklessness and hacking into computer networks in the United States and across Europe and the world has become critical to protect collective security,” he said.

He outlined how he could bridge the transition from Trump’s isolationist policy to a new era of US leadership and from the old Democratic foreign policy to one that is increasingly becoming progressive.

Biden Doctrine

By all indications – after wandering in the wilderness of a chaotic Trump administration – diplomacy is once again at the center of American foreign policy.  In fact, the Biden Doctrine or Bidenism doesn’t entirely abandon Trump’s nationalist vision.  His goal of making the middle class the center of his doctrine on foreign policy carries the imprint of the populist message that catapulted Trump to prominence and power.

Biden who had championed globalization that included free trade, has pledged that every foreign-policy decision from now on must be taken “with American working families in mind.”  That’s true populism unlike Trump’s brand of demagoguery.

Instead of following Trump’s retreat and retrenchment, Biden pledged that he would rebuild the “muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect… and abuse.”  He vowed that he would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners.”

It is interesting to note that while Trump viewed allies as taking advantage of the US, Biden sees them as “a pennies-on-the-dollar” way to bolster US security. “The United States doesn’t invest in diplomacy just because it’s the right thing to do for the world,” Biden said. “We do it because it is in our own naked self-interest.”  As someone once said, “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests.”

Clearly, the difference between Trump’s “America First” and Biden’s global diplomatic offensive is that while Trump wrecked the harmonious relationship between America and her allies, Biden is cementing an orderly world order with America at the helm… and rightly so.

Trump had created havoc in Europe by making US allies walk on thin ice due to Trump’s ambiguity in affirming to honor NATO’s Article 5, which stipulates that other NATO allies must come to the aid of an ally under attack if it is invoked.  He called NATO obsolete.  “It’s no longer needed,” he said.  Does that mean the NATO allies can fend for themselves from Russian aggression?  He needs to remember that there is peace in Europe only because of the 29-member NATO’s existence.  On March 29, 2004, former Soviet client states Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia formally became members of NATO.  If they didn’t join NATO, Russia could have overran them within days.  These countries form a buffer zone between Western Europe and Russia.  Needless to say, they will always remain loyal to the US and NATO.  Biden reassured world leaders of the US’s commitment to her European allies after their relationship had eroded under Trump’s presidency.

The speed by which Biden had swiftly dismantled Trump’s foreign policy agenda, is remarkable.  Within days he resolved two thorny diplomatic and geopolitical situations by rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization.  Yes, America is back in the game for good.

Indeed, Biden has driven home the core proposition that “the trans-Atlantic alliance is the cornerstone for American engagement in the world in the 21st century, just as it was in the 20th.”  Biden’s swift actions confirmed the fallacy of “America First.”